Or why does it matter?
This story in the New York Times is raising some questions for me. A genealogist has uncovered the fact that Michelle Obama has a white ancestor (shocking!). Apparently her great-great-great grandmother gave birth to a white man's child "under circumstances lost in the passage of time." Given that she was a slave and he wasn't, I think we can pretty safely guess what those circumstances were. According to the article, the value of this kind of info is that it "highlights the complicated history of racial intermingling, sometimes born of violence or coercion, that lingers in the bloodlines of many African-Americans." But why is the highlighting of this history valuable? Because it shows that there is no such thing as discrete racial groups, as some people still (astonishingly) believe? Maybe. But there seems to also be a subtext suggesting that this makes Michelle O more acceptable or something. Like "it's OK to like her, because she's not all black." Or like it's being used to explain why she allegedly stands out and is so accomplished. Maybe I'm being oversensitive here, but there's a clear implication that this info reveals something significant about her - like it makes her a different person somehow.
Another troubling aspect of this is that it's unclear whether Michelle O wanted this info unearthed, or whether she consented to the genealogical search, or consented to having this info revealed in the NYT just as she was learning about it herself. Obviously when you're as big of a celebrity as she is, you don't get to control your personal information in this way. But it still feels a bit exploitive.
Then there's the theme of five generations from slavery to White House. In itself, it is inspirational. The problem is that it, like so many other inspiring stories, will most likely be used to bolster the claim that we're now living in a post-racial world, that systemic obstacles no longer exist, that the playing field is now truly level, etc. And that's really irritating. Beyond that, it makes me realize that part of me doesn't even want these kinds of inspirational stories told, because I know how they'll inevitably be used to silence people and gloss over the often ugly truth. And that is very sad.